AT THE College of Bishops' residential meeting this week, the
Pilling report was scheduled for further discussion (News, 12
September). The report is the work of the House of Bishops
Working Group on sexuality, and was published last November.
In January, the College of Bishops published a statement
acknowledging the "strongly held and divergent" views reflected in
the report, and accepting its recommendation for "facilitated
conversations" to continue the process of listening, reflection,
and discussion. There are, however, several important questions
that need to be addressed about the report, particularly on its
approach to the evidence and use of science.
The report has been criticised from both sides of the debate,
but the process of facilitated conversation requires that we all,
with the Bishops, give it careful attention. It raises questions
not only about how we interpret scripture, but also about how we
interpret our knowledge of sexuality. The often unexamined
assumptions about the relationship between science and theology
which are embedded in these interpretative processes influence both
the way in which we go about the debate, and the conclusions that
THE working group that produced the Pilling report was asked to
"draw together and reflect upon biblical, historical, and
ecumenical explorations on human sexuality", as well as other
material arising from the listening process after the 1998 Lambeth
This task need not necessarily have involved attention to
scientific explorations, and the group does not appear to have had
a scientific adviser. It is commendable, therefore, that the group
recognised the importance of the scientific evidence, and devoted a
whole chapter of its report to it.
Reflecting on the scientific evidence, the group concludes that
"neither the medical nor the social sciences have arrived at any
firm consensus that would impact decisively on the moral
arguments." It further notes that it is in the nature of science to
test hypotheses against evidence, and that the theses that emerge
can always be challenged by new evidence.
Similarly, "the teaching of the Church, like a thesis in
scientific enquiry, stands until the evidence contradicting it is
sufficient to change it." Such transformative evidence is not
solely scientific, but it is clear that the group understood that,
in part, it may be scientific. Unfortunately, it found that the
evidence was "not unequivocal", and that scientists "find their
scientific knowledge supporting different conclusions".
The reader may conclude that the scientific evidence did not
help much. When it comes to reflecting on the traditional Anglican
recourse to scripture, tradition, and reason, science - as a strand
of reason - seems to contribute little or nothing to the
conclusions reached in the report, other than to reinforce the
sense of irreconcilable disagreement.
PERHAPS, then, it is time to put aside the science, and return
to the more important biblical and theological debate. This, I
think, would be a deeply mistaken conclusion, and, clearly, the
working group does, too; for it recommends that the Church should
continue to pay attention to the "as yet inconclusive scientific
work on same-sex attraction".
"Same-sex attraction" is not a phrase that appears in scripture,
and the working group - wisely, in my view - identifies the
importance of the "Is this really that?" question as a key
determinant of the different ways in which we interpret scripture
on matters such as this. So when we discuss this
(homosexuality or any other matter), we must ask whether or not it
is the same as the that to which the biblical text
If, however, this question is to be followed through faithfully,
it requires that careful biblical exegesis be accompanied by an
equally careful analysis of the scientific evidence. Both scripture
and scientific evidence have to be interpreted, and each plays a
part in the interpretation of the other, whatever privilege we may
feel that we need to give one or the other.
But the interpretation of science, the "Is this . . ?" part of
the question, is not the same as the interpretation of scripture,
the ". . . really that?" part.
THE Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt Revd Keith Sinclair, a member
of the working group, found himself unable to sign the Pilling
report. A dissenting statement and an appendix concerning scripture
and same-sex relationships, both written by him, are, however,
published with the report.
In the latter, he expresses concern that there has been a
revisionist re-reading of scripture. Presumably, he is concerned
that non-traditional interpretations of scripture have been adopted
(by some) without due regard to a weight of biblical scholarship
that continues to affirm the "traditional" biblical teaching on
Yet I do not believe that this is the primary problem. There has
been a revisionist "reading" of our experience of human sexuality,
and this, at least in part, has come about because of the way in
which we now read scientifically.
First, our scientific concept of homosexuality is a modern one,
acknowledging diversity within the range of normal sexual
orientation; and, as such, was completely unknown to the Early
Second, this scientific concept of homosexuality is no longer
considered pathological, and mainstream scientific and clinical
thinking concerning its origin and implications has changed out of
all recognition; expectations for good professional practice now
Third, as outlined in the report Some Issues in Human
Sexuality (2003), there have been significant changes of
understanding in Church and society more widely relating to various
aspects of sexuality, including divorce and contraception, as well
as homosexuality. As a result, we now interpret the metaphorical
"text" of sexuality very differently from the ways we did 50 or 100
Radical changes such as these have led to what Bishop Sinclair
refers to as "revisionist" readings of scripture; but it is
misleading and unhelpful to refer to re-readings in this way. There
is no traditional reading of scripture on homosexuality to be
revised, given that the modern scientific concept of homosexuality
was unknown until the 19th century.
Notwithstanding the view of the whole working group that the
scientific evidence is uncertain, many Christian professionals, as
well as gay and lesbian Christians, experience significant unease
at the way in which traditional readings of the Bible on homosexual
behaviour have become associated with prejudice towards gay,
lesbian, and bisexual people. Traditional readings of scripture
that now appear to promote such prejudice have therefore given way
to new readings that seek to show that scripture is still
authoritative and redemptive.
One problem, then, is that we are confused about whether we are
talking primarily about the interpretation of scripture, or the
interpretation of human experience, and that these two hermeneutic
processes are inextricably linked with one another, at least - but
not only - for Christians in the Western world.
A SECOND problem that I encounter as a practical theologian, and
as a scientist reading this report, is that I do not see the
critical rigour in evaluating scientific evidence which I should
expect to find here. This is evident in numerous ways, but a single
example may suffice to illustrate the nature of the problem.
The submission from the Royal College of Psychiatrists is quoted
in support of a now widely accepted clinical and scientific view,
based on peer-reviewed publications, that homosexual orientation is
compatible with normal mental health. It is the experience of
stigma and discrimination in society that contributes to the
greater-than-expected mental-health problems experienced by some
gay and lesbian people.
The report, however, immediately counterbalances this viewpoint
with an opposing one, taken from a booklet published by a Christian
organisation committed to a particular theological view in relation
to matters of sexuality, Core Issues Trust.
Thus, it is alleged, the view of the Royal College is "neither
proven nor ruled out by the evidence", and an alternative
possibility, that homosexual orientation "cuts against a
fundamental gender-based given of the human condition, thus causing
distress", is equally neither proved nor ruled out.
Having consulted the peer-reviewed primary-research papers on
which the opposing viewpoints are based, I find it hard to avoid
the conclusion that the Core Issues Trust has simply marshalled
scientific evidence in support of a position that has previously
been determined by a particular interpretation of scripture. Thus,
the point of view that it promotes is not so much based on
scientific evidence as it is an apologetic for a theological
It is impossible, however, to reach this conclusion (or the
alternative possible conclusion that the Royal College of
Psychiatrists has misinterpreted the scientific evidence in support
of another agenda), without consulting the primary-research
publications oneself. Unfortunately, in its report, the working
group shows little evidence of having done this.
A THIRD and more fundamental problem is that science and
theology are both concerned with asking and answering questions.
The six questions chosen for attention in the section of the report
which deals with scientific evidence are themselves
The first question, dealing with sexual dimorphism, evokes an
answer concerned largely with intersex syndromes and
transsexualism, both of which are more or less beside the point so
far as homosexuality is concerned. And yet none of the questions
deals with the important issue why homosexuality is no longer
classified as a psychiatric disorder.
There is a question about the causes of homosexuality, and much
is made about what we do not know by way of answer, but there is no
question asking whether homosexuality is something that people
choose, or whether it is something more essential to personal
identity, something that is discovered about oneself rather than
It is not clear how the scientific questions addressed in the
report were identified, but the choice of questions would seem to
have been significant in determining the conclusions reached. Some
questions that were not asked are inherently both scientific and
theological, notably the all-important "What is natural?" Failure
to ask these difficult questions has let us all off the hook in
relation to the thorny problem of how we engage scientific with
theological reasoning in our understanding of sexuality.
This, in turn, has made it difficult to develop a coherent
Christian view of sexuality which has both scientific and
A FOURTH and final problem that has not been addressed is that
scientific terminology is precise, and open to examination - even
when contested - in a way that ancient Hebrew and Greek terminology
(for example, words such as "arsenokoitēs") is not.
Homosexuality is a modern term; St Paul never talks about
"homosexuality", but only about homosexual acts and desires (and
using language that is different from ours).
Scientific discourse on homosexuality requires that we
distinguish carefully between sexual orientation, sexual identity
(which has anatomical, genetic, psychological, and social
dimensions), sexual attraction, and sexual behaviour. This care is
sometimes lacking in the report.
Thus, questions are formed using words that are not quite right
for the purpose (for example: "Is sexual attraction fixed and
immutable?" when it is actually sexual orientation that appears to
be under discussion). Sexual identity is discussed only in the
section on homophobia, and none of these terms seems to be
adequately defined anywhere in the report.
HAD the scientific questions been chosen differently, and had
the evidence been evaluated more critically in searching for the
answers to them, I believe that the theological implications might
have been different, or at least more helpful.
We interpret scripture, scientific evidence, and our experience
of our sexuality according to complex and often hidden assumptions,
which do not always lead us to sound conclusions. Where we start,
whether with scripture or science, is probably less important than
having the wisdom to formulate the right questions, the courage to
ask them, and a constructively critical, rigorous, but also
compassionate spirit with which to pursue the answers.
As we approach the process of facilitated conversation which the
Pilling report has recommended, and which the Bishops have
endorsed, I hope that more critical attention will be given to the
scientific evidence. It has the potential to help us to address new
questions to scripture, which, in turn, may help us to find that
scripture is authoritative and salvific in ways that we had not
In response, scripture presents us with important theological
and prophetic questions about patterns of stigma and prejudice,
which science has identified as underlying (and consequential upon)
much mental ill-health.
Dr Chris Cook is Professor of Spirituality, Theology and
Health at Durham University.